The End of the Roman Empire in the West and the Early Christian Church
Germanic Invasions and the Collapse of the Western Empire (378-476 CE)
In the 300s CE, Rome faced serious internal problems and also struggled to control its empire. Germanic tribes began rising up against Rome in the 200s, and threatened Rome in the 300s.
The “Germans” (Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, Goths, Ostrogoths, Franks, etc.) were farmers who had been incorporated into Rome’s empire since the late Republic. In the 300s CE, Rome’s relationship with the Germanic tribes was complex. Rome depended on the Germans to serve in its army and encouraged them to settle and farm land on the empire's north-eastern borders. But the Germanic tribes resented Roman rule and wanted rich Roman-controlled farming regions.
Rome and the Visigoths
Around 350 CE, the Visigoths along the Danube River were attacked by nomadic raiders from East Asia, the Huns. The Visigoths responded by moving into Roman territory near the mouth of the Danube (in today’s Bulgaria). But the Romans abused them: officials from Constantinople demanded illegal tribute from Visigoths; when the Visigoths refused to pay, Roman soldiers took their children as slaves, raped the women, and tortured the men. In 378, 50,000 Visigoths rebelled and defeated an army sent from Constantinople. They then moved through Greece and along the Adriatic Sea towards Italy. The Western Empire offered more farm land and were an easier target than Constantinople. Economic crisis and depopulation had made western Roman cities weak, and the under-manned and de-moralized western Roman armies put up little resistance. In 410 the Visigoths attacked and plundered Rome itself. They then seized control over the rich farm land of southern Gaul.
Rome and the Vandals
After Visigoth victories revealed Rome's weakness, other tribes rebelled and attacked Rome. The Vandals invaded Rome's territories in Gaul; so did the Franks, Alamans, Burgundians, and several other tribes (displaced from their homelands by the invading Huns). The Roman Army put up little resistance. The Vandals moved into Spain and North Africa, and seized control over Roman Numidia in 439. In 455 the Vandals attacked and plundered Rome from the sea.
The “Fall” of Rome
In 476 CE an army of Huns and Ostrogoths again attacked Rome. This time, though, the invaders stayed and seized power over Italy. The Ostrogoth leader Theodoric declared himself King of Rome.
Germanic Rule in the Roman West
Rome had imposed political unity through imperial force in Western Europe, but in the 500 CE Western Europe was a patchwork of Germanic kingdoms. Ostrogoths ruled most of Italy; Lombards ruled northeast Italy, Vandals ruled the former Roman Africa; Visigoths ruled Iberia (Spain) and south-eastern Gaul (SE France); Franks ruled most of Gaul (France and W. Germany); Burgundians ruled southeastern Gaul; and Anglo-Saxons ruled Britain.
The End of Roman Urban Culture in Europe
Urban aspects of Roman culture declined rapidly under Germanic rule. The Germans were farming people and cared little for urban trade. So Roman cities became depopulated and were reduced to towns. The Germanic rulers did not base their government in cities—power was wherever the king was—and they ruled by assigning power to loyal aristocrats. So the Roman state bureaucracy faded away in the west.
But German rule did not mean the end of Roman culture in the West: the Germans admired Roman culture, adopted Latin as their language of state, and converted to the Christian faith. (Example: King Clovis of the Franks.)
The Roman Empire Lives on in the East: Justinian’s Law Code and the Legal Basis of Autocratic Power
In 527 CE, the Rome’s Eastern Empire in Constantinople passed to Justinian. Justinian’s revision and codification of Rome’s laws, the Corpus Juris Civilis (the body of civil law), defined the emperor's powers as unlimited (but as coming “from the people”). The Justinian law code shaped thinking about state power, property rights, and civil law for 1000 years.
Justinian’s Attempt to Restore the Empire
Justinian saw the emperor as legal ruler of the entire Roman Empire, East and West. This guided his military policy, which aimed at reunifying the empire. In the 530s, his armies conquered North Africa, most of Italy, and much of Spain. But the Goths resisted in a guerrilla war that dragged into the 560s. By Justinian's death in 565, the Roman Empire was “reunited." But doing this had crippled the Eastern Empire—it no longer had the soldiers or tax revenues to fight German resistance and at the same time fight the resurgent Persians in the East. By 600, Constantinople again lost most of Italy, Gaul, and Spain. In 610, Constantinople gave up trying to control the West.
In the Mean Time---the Evolution of Christian Practice and Thought (300s-early 500s CE)
Theology and a World of Pain and Sin: Christianity became Rome's state religion at the same time that the Western Empire faced the Germanic invasions and decline. Many early Christian theologians argued that worldly existence was nothing but chaos, misery, and insecurity—God tested us in this life to see if we could resist the temptations of sin. They insisted that this world is profane and transitory; only the spiritual world, God's kingdom, offers peace. (Here you can see the influence of Platonic Idealism.)
Monasticism: On response to the world’s "sinfulness" was to withdraw completely (asceticism). In the 400s CE, monasticism became an important element in Christianity. Thousands of laymen (non-clergy) became hermit monks and lived in isolation and poverty, to prove their devotion to Christ. Thousands of monks also formed communities—monasteries-- where they pledge to live in Christ-like poverty and dedicate themselves to prayer and labor.
The Early Church Fathers
The three most important theologians of the early church were Saints Jerome (320-420 CE), Ambrose (340-397), and Augustine (354-430). By examining how to live a Christian life, each helped shape the Roman Church’s core beliefs.
Jerome favored monastic seclusion, piety, and study. But he also saw the value of the pre-Christian Roman and Greek scholarship and encouraged the study of classical works, if these could be subordinated to the aims of Church. Jerome argued that God intended the Bible to be read as allegory, as metaphor through which we can find God's truth. He translated the Hebrew "Old Testament" and the Greek "New Testament" into Latin (the common language to the Germanic elites). His "Vulgate" Bible then helped spread of Christianity in western Europe.
Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, also stressed the importance of classical learning, if subordinated to the aims of the Church. In 390 CE, Ambrose excommunicated Emperor Theodosius after the emperor massacred rebellious Christians in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Ambrose declared that the emperor had put himself outside the community of Christ and the body of the Church. Theodosius repented, but not until Ambrose has established the doctrine that the Church is independent of the Emperor and discipline secular authorities.
Augustine, born in North Africa to a pagan father and a Christian mother, converted to Christianity at age thirty-three (in 387 CE). By 400 CE he was Bishop of Hippo. In his memoirs (the Confessions), Augustine explained his own sinful past and said all men and women are born in sin. God the Creator gave people free will, and Adam and Eve had chosen sin, which condemned all mankind to a life of sin and sorrow. But at the creation, God the Redeemer predestined some souls for salvation, and Christ’s suffering then appointed Grace to the “elect.” Augustine said good works cannot earn salvation, but since men cannot know God’s mind and never know if they are elect, they must be good in hope of being granted Grace. For Augustine, this meant living a life of Christ-like charity and love for one's neighbors.
Augustine asked why God permitted chaos and crisis like that Rome suffered during his lifetime. He argued that God guides human history: the mysterious hand of God shapes all events and moves history towards Grace, the resurrection of Christ and the Day of Judgment. Augustine said that God created mankind in two warring faction: those who "live according to God" (the Chosen). and those that "live according to man" (the Condemned). God's Grace united the Chosen into a community (the "City of God") against the Condemned, but the spiritual City of God would not become manifest until the Resurrection. Therefore (again), the best way to live is to walk the path of righteousness.
Like Jerome, Augustine believed that the Bible was allegory and that to understand its mysteries required education. He insisted that Christian elites should receive a classical education, but (like Jerome and Ambrose) said that classical ideas be subordinated to the Church’s teachings.
The Marriage of Classicism and Christianity
The early Church Fathers stressed that Christian education should subordinate classical Roman and Greek to Christian doctrine. One central figure in this process was the Roman aristocrat Boethius (480-524 CE), who wrote texts about Greek and Roman scholarly works and translated major Greek works into Latin. His goal to preserve elements of classical learning that “fit” the teachings of Christianity. Boethius refashioned works of Greek literature and philosophy based on Christian theology—for example, he presented the Greek myths as allegories for various Christian concepts.
Boethius and other Christian scholars tried to purge classical texts of their “paganism” without losing their wisdom. Any classical literature that could not be “Christianized” was ignored or banned. Much of the work of "Christianizing" classical texts and reproducing such texts took place in the monasteries.
St. Benedict and the Rules of Monasticism
In the early 500s, the monastic movement became systemized thanks to the monk Benedict (St. Benedict), who set rules that became the basis for the organization of Christian monastic life. Monks in the Benedictine Order took vows of celibacy and absolute obedience to their Abbot, and led simple lives devoted to labor and prayer. One of Benedict's successors, Cassiodorus, added the principle that monks understand classical learning as well as of the Bible. So Benedictine monasteries became important centers of scholarship, where hundreds of classical texts were copied (and thus survived).